query Writing - The Dirty Trenches

Writing a query sucks. It always will. It is the single most important skill a writer can learn and it is the hardest tool in the writer's toolbox to keep sharp and maintained. Yet, without it, you cannot entice an agent or sell a book to an editor if you cannot distill 100,000+words into 200.

The thing all the novel query pages don't tell you is how, actually how, to write the two to three paragraphs that you will send to an agent that will get you signed and eventually entice an editor so you can get paid. Right?

No one writes precisely about this process. So I'm doing for you what I wish someone had done for me.

Here are some tips and tricks to write your query. This will work for any novel from any genre.

1) Start out big. Like synopsis big. Write it long, maybe five-ish pages summarizing your novel. Leave nothing important out. This is also where you have full permission to "tell" instead of "show". Then shorten your synopsis by cutting lines or revising them to be shorter. Keep cutting things like excess plot, side characters, even main characters (if you have more than one), side quests, detail, etc. from your synopsis until you're down to a tight one page document.

2) Take that one page document and transform it into a bulleted list. Something like so:

* Inciting incident

* First turn or (if you follow the hero's journey the Refusal)

* Break into act 2

* Bad guy info 1

* Good guy info 1

* Bad guy response

* Good guy response

* Act 3

* Dark Night of the Soul

* Resolution

3) Awesome, now start with this sentence formula:

Main Character must accomplish ________ or ___________ will happen.

4) Now expand that a little by little.

Main character is a _____ ______ with ______ problem. She must do _____. but _____ is stoping her. [Instert series of complications and plot hi jinx that should get more concerning as you put them here.] In order to _________ and _______ she must confront/do/have/obtain/verb ___________ and ___________. [Insert cool, dun, Dun, DUN last line.]

5) Amazing! Now you have something to work with. This first version of your query should probably be anywhere between 100-500 words. You want to shoot for 200 or less. However, now is a good time to get someone else's opinion. Your critique partners or writerly friends (hopefully published writerly friends who have some sense of what they are doing) can look it over and answer these questions for you (feel free to revise this list and add your own. A good critique partner will already know you are looking for the answers to these and won't need this list, but noobs will:

* Is the query unfocused?

* Did you get a sense of the plot?

* Were you excited to know more (do ask this of anyone who has not read anything from this project before and ask them to answer honestly. If it is boring you NEED to know. It's not a rejection, its a truth. If a lay person is bored, how bored will an agent who gets between 300-1,500 of these a month be?)

* Did you get a feeling of urgency? Or humor? Or whatever tone you are going for with the manuscript?

* What didn't you understand?

* What was confusing?

6) Rewrite. Cut. Revise. If its still not working and you're of draft 4 of your query, rewrite it completely.

7) Once you have a draft that is TIGHT, like spandex pants on a superhero, second skin leather catsuit on Freya from A Court of Thrones and Roses by Sarah J. Maas tight, you are ready, my baby writer, to submit.

[Insert Fiddler on the Roof Music but instead of "tradition" they are singing "Suuubmissions! Submissions!"]

8) When you submit your query, do so knowing even though your friends like it, professionals give it a green light, agents and editors may pass it over. If after a month of consistent querying (let's say you're sending 7 emails a week) and you receive rejections and no requests, it does no harm to rewrite that query. Try something different.

Be sure to double check the agent's MSWL (manuscript wish list for all you newbies), and their submission guidelines. If they say it takes them up to three months to respond, then not all is lost! But also query widely. An agent that has a waiting list of three months is a busy agent who might not have time to take on a new client.

Remember to keep a level head. No one is out to get you. No one is trying to hurt your feelings. This is just business. So do business and while you wait, write the next book!

Links and Helpful Things

Now, for a compilation of podcasts, videos, links and other nonsense to help you write your query. These are stories from people who were rejected, accepted, and hopefully it all helps.

Good luck, writer!

The Writer's Digest Podcast - Ask the Agent

Writing Excuses - Proposals, Pitches, and Queries

Writing Excuses - Query Letters

Writing Excuses - Pitching

The Writer's Digest - 10 Do's and Don'ts of Query Writing

The Manuscript Wishlist - Query Writing

Novel Novice: Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Stiefvater's 10 Rules for Query Letters

Holly Black - Writing Advice Interview